In Our Time: Epicureanism

Epicureanism is another Greek philosophy I’d heard of but didn’t really know more than the name. Even less than I knew about scepticism, where at least I was vaguely aware of the idea. The experts dicussing Epicureanism on In Our Time were Angie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), David Sedley (University of Cambridge) and James Warren (University of Cambridge).

Epicurus was a Greek who lived around the 4th Century BC, who wrote extensively on many subjects including physics, natural history, ethics & philosophy. Many of his writings survived – partly the way things always survive, by being copied again & again as people find them useful and also by being referred to by other people. But they’ve also survived in a more surprising way – a library in the house of a Roman living near Herculaneum was preserved via being carbonised (so they said, I assume carbonised in a readable form) and there are works of Epicurus that are only known from this library. There’s also a poem written by Lucretius extolling the virtues of Epicureanism that passed on much of the philosophy, Hobbs in particular waxed lyrical about this.

They spent a while discussing Epicurus’s understanding of physics, as that underpinned his philosophy. He wasn’t the first Greek philosopher to believe the world to be made out of atoms, but he did write about this extensively. He argued it starting from the idea that our senses tell us that the world is made up of bodies, and that there must therefore also be voids otherwise no movement would be possible. He then argued that the bodies we see (like a person, an animal, a plant, a rock, whatever) must be made up of smaller bodies because the ones we see are divisible and change. So these small indivisible (and invisible) bodies are atoms, and they exist in a void. He also argued that this void must be infinite, because if there is an end to it then what’s beyond the end? Logically it must be infinite and then this implies that the bodies (atoms) are infinite in number – if there was only a finite number then they’d be spread too thin to form the larger bodies.

Epicurus also needed to explain how come we can have free will if everything is made up of atoms that move in precisely predictable ways, and he did this by means of “the swerve”. This is saying that an atom as it moves in its straight line might deviate a small amount in its course, and this then means that not everything is predictable so there can still be free will. This idea came back again in the early 20th Century – as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle allowed philosophers who were worried how free will could fit into a universe ordered by Newtonian physics to say that the universe wasn’t predictable. But the experts were saying that it’s not clear how that actually works, mechanistically speaking, to give free will it just feels intuitive that you need some sort of unpredictability to the universe.

These ideas about the physical basis of the world put him in opposition to the Sceptics. Because his arguments are all based initially on “our senses tell us …” he can’t share the Sceptics’ views that one cannot trust one’s senses. So he argued against that. His theory about how our senses work was that there was some film emanated by a physical body that passed through the air to the ears or eyes or whatever. And when it entered our sense organs then the brain’s interpretation of that was always accurate – but it might have been changed between the object and one’s sense organs. So an example is an oar half in & half out of water looks bent but feels straight. The Sceptical way to look at this was that it was a contradiction between your two senses so how could you tell which one was accurate? Epicurus said that your perceptions were both accurate – it looks bent, it feels straight – and it’s that something happens between the object and your seeing of it that makes it look bent.

This model of the physical world is what lead to Epicurus’s philosophy of life. If everything is made up from these bodies, including the soul, including the gods, then there is no afterlife and the gods are not our creators. So the right and good way to live your life should be based on something in this world, and Epicurus said that this should be pleasure. When a baby is born, it already knows the difference between pain & pleasure it’s not something taught – so choosing pleasure as your guiding principle is going back to basics. This wasn’t a philosophy of sybaritic luxury, Epicurus believed that true pleasure was when you were free of pain and it didn’t get better by adding on more luxuries. So if you weren’t hungry, then that was the same amount of pleasure regardless of whether you’d had a simple, filling meal or a fancy feast. They talked about this quite a bit on the programme – there was something about two sorts of pleasures, and the static ones (like freedom from hunger) being the greater ones. Epicurus also counted freedom from fear as being a foundational form of pleasure, so to follow his philosophy you needed to work on not being afraid of death. When it came to physical pain his idea was that if it’s mild pain then you can use your mind to remember past pleasure or anticipate future pleasure and eventually the pain will pass. And if it’s severe pain then it won’t last long (they were saying on the programme that this was because if it was severe pain then you were probably going to die, and as there was no afterlife then it’d all be over).

They were saying that Epicureanism lasted well into Roman times as a philosophical school, but it’s in many ways the opposite of Christianity. So as Christianity rose Epicureanism fell out of favour. The works of Epicurus were rediscovered in Europe in the Renaissance, but they didn’t have much time on the programme to discuss this.